A RUSSIAN general saluted four RAF flyers yesterday in tribute to

their deaths more than 50 years ago when their bomber crashed while

helping the Red Army fight off the German airforce.

The salute marked the end of years of uncertainty about the fate of

the crew of Hampden bomber AT138, which disappeared while flying from

Shetland to Murmansk.

The pilot, Flight Sergeant John Bray, survived and was told his four

dead comrades were given a military funeral. But the bodies had been

left in the wreckage of the burned-out aircraft.

Major General Juriy Solovyov, deputy commander of the northern army

region of Archangel, led high-ranking mourners paying tribute to the

airmen who died along with six other Hampden crews in September 1942.

The general was joined by the dead men's relatives who finally knew

their loved ones were at rest with other heroes in the Allied cemetery

in the town.

The families had been flown to Russia by the RAF, which provided a

burial party from the Queen's Colour Squadron, RAF Regiment.

Their emotional 2000-mile journey brought them to one of the most

secret areas of the former Soviet Union, virtually closed to Western

eyes since the beginning of the Cold War.

Glasnost has opened the area again and last year a Russian aircraft

spotter reported finding the wreckage of a Hampden, close to the village

of Alekurtti, near Lake Vikurij.

The remains of four men were discovered, one of them wearing a

nine-carat gold signet ring with the ornately-carved initials LM.

It was traced to airman Leslie Mallinson, a 20-year-old armourer who

had volunteered to fly with 144 Squadron to Murmansk to help service the


The ring was yesterday back in Russia, clutched by his sister as she

watched his coffin being lowered into the grave. On her black jacket,

Mrs Jean Jackson, 65, wore the medals Leslie never lived to display for


His ring helped the RAF trace the three other men's relatives, thanks

to meticulous detective work and months of patient sifting of records.

They found sisters Margaret Neesham, Jean Struthers, and Honor Mason

-- whose brother, Pilot Officer John Smith, navigated the bomber on the

fatal flight 51 years ago -- at their homes in Eastbourne, East Sussex.

The RAF already knew that the family of Sergeant Stanley Otter, the

air gunner/wireless operator, was trying to find his whereabouts.

His brother Alan, 75, and granddaughters Carolyn, 20, and Sally, 17,

also made the trip.

From Flight Sergeant John Kirkby's relatives came his brother John,

72; his wife Clara, 77; niece Carol Ivory, and her son Jonathan, 14.

The Rev. Group Captain Brian McAvoy, from the RAF church, St Clement

Dane's, Aldwych, London, said: ''This moment and this event would not

have been possible until very recently.

''The souls of our brothers can rest all the more easily because we

stand here in a new atmosphere of trust and interdependence -- the same

trust and interdependence that lay behind the convoys of food and

equipment that they served to protect over 50 years ago.''

The Handley Page Hampden bombers -- affectionately nicknamed the

Flying Suitcase, the Ferocious Flying Pan, or the Hambone -- were sent

to Russia to protect convoys which had suffered devastating losses.

Churchill and Roosevelt were determined to keep supplying Stalin with

food and equipment and ordered a huge convoy, PQ18, to be made ready to

sail in October 1942.

Some survivors of that convoy stood weeping at the cemetery as Group

Captain McAvoy conducted the service.

The former Royal and Merchant Navy sailors paid tribute to the airmen

who tried to beat off the attacks mounted daily by the Germans.

Mr Arne Johnsen, 78, a Norwegian now living in Cornwall, said: ''We

were under constant attack from the Germans. We knew the RAF was trying

to help but we were too busy trying to save our lives to even notice

their planes.''

Mr Ronald Balaam, also from Cornwall, who was a sick berth attendant

aboard the destroyer HMS Escapade, wept at the memory of those dark


He said: ''We needed luck and all the help we could get then. When we

heard about this funeral, we had to come to pay our respects to these

brave men.''

As the coffins were laid to rest, the convoy veterans stood to

attention while Russian soldiers fired a volley of shots over the


After the ceremony, Jean Jackson said: ''The family is complete again

at last. We know that Leslie is among his friends and the years of

wondering what had happened are over. This ring was bought by my parents

for Leslie when this kind of gold was hard to find.''

Honor Mason said: ''The ceremony was wonderful. I have never been to a

war cemetery before, but I feel John is with his friends here. We are

just happy that all the wondering is over for the whole family.''